July 16, 2012
By Anton Malko
BERKELEY - Young and full of promise, California lacrosse continues to solidify itself not just as a team that excels on the field and in the classroom, but also as a program committed to financial sustainability.
Golden Bears lacrosse bounced back from the brink of elimination out of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2010-11 to rise again in 2012 thanks to dedicated student-athletes, a talented new coach and passionate members of the Cal community, which included peer teams in the department, current parents, faculty and young alumni who have ensured that Cal lacrosse will remain a vital part of the IA family.
"It's our due diligence to give back to help support and provide the same experience to the future Cal lacrosse Bears that we had," said Meghan Bushnell, who graduated in 2007 as a three-time MPSF All-Academic honoree.
"It takes a village to reach success," added Bushnell, currently working at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco as an Assistant AD for External Relations & Student-Athlete Development. "It's vital that anyone who has been a part of the family gives back to support and leverage the future of Cal Lacrosse."
Inaugurated as a varsity program in 1999, women's lacrosse is the youngest varsity sport at the University. On Sept. 28, 2010, it became a highly endangered program when it was included among the five teams slated for elimination.
Less than four months later, on Feb. 11, 2011, lacrosse was reinstated. Amid the jubilation was urgency to ramp up a much more aggressive outreach program to the program's alumni and the community at large. "Everyone needs to look back and ask, `How would my life have changed if I didn't go to Cal to play lacrosse?'" said Cristen Andrews, who graduated in 2008 and remains tied for second all-time in program history with 72 games played.
A member of the 2008 MPSF All-Tournament team and three-time conference All-Academic honoree who worked after graduation for Cal's sales & marketing department and Olympic operations, and then IMG Media, Andrews and fellow alumni have stressed the need to make every class responsible for itself with the goal of 100 percent participation.
Parent participation is a priority, too.
"When you give to a program, you become invested in it and your interest is infectious," said Rick Harrison, whose daughter Tori graduated this spring. Tori Harrison was a three-sport athlete from Austin, Texas, who attended lacrosse camps at Virginia, Denver and Cal in the summer after her sophomore year of high school.
"She liked all three but just fell in love with Cal," Rick Harrison said. "Parents of players like me appreciate the totality of the experience their daughters have received."
When they learned that the program was slated to be cut, Harrison and her roommate came up with the slogan, "You Can't Put a Price on Dreams." After her mother, Teresa, printed the words on T-shirts, her father said, "People wanted to buy them from all over the country. It was a groundswell of support and heartwarming to see people not even associated directly with the programs supportive of bringing them back."
A sizable amount of financial support also came from Cal rugby, which sought to unite lacrosse and women's gymnastics with its own retention in order to ensure that Cal's Title IX compliance remained intact.
Andrews credited rugby's role in ensuring lacrosse's preservation in IA. "We need to emulate rugby," she said. "They have a tradition of giving back, of winning and doing it with honor. The networking, professional development, the lifelong friendships - being connected - that's what we're after."
The lacrosse team enjoyed much success in its first 12 years in Intercollegiate Athletics. Head coaches Jill Malko and Theresa Sherry both received Coach of the Year honors, in 2004 and 2008, respectively, from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Cal hadn't won its conference since 2004. "We knew that was an aggressive goal, but we also knew that was something we were entirely capable of," Miles said.
In their first preseason game, senior leader Tara Arolla went down with a year-ending injury. But the Bears didn't fold up their tent. Arolla took on the role of a fourth coach, joining Miles and assistants Allison Comito and Emma Wallace on the sideline.
Megan Takacs, the nation's leading scorer, also went down later in the spring, but the Bears never gave up. Cal ended the season at 8-8, with three of its losses decided by a single goal, and finished fourth in the MPSF.
Their achievements were impressive: three Bears placed on the All-MPSF first team, including Player of the Year Takacs, who missed Cal's last three games. In addition to one All-MPSF second-team selection, lacrosse had 12 MPSF All-Academic honorees.
Malko, who led the Bears to their 2004 MPSF title, said she was "exceptionally impressed. I think they were the surprise team of the conference this year."
Malko added that Miles is a "perfect match for the team" at this juncture in its history and also "the right fit academically - she gets the Berkeley piece and how important that is as opposed to the Cal Athletics piece."
In 2010, Epstein received a jersey signed by the entire team after announcing plans to yield to a new liaison at the end of the year. But when the sport was put in jeopardy, the now 75-year-old grandfather pledged to stay with the team through troubled times. Today he looks back with pride at the team's perseverance.
"They have overcome a lot of adversity, from the lingering effect of uncertainty to their 11th-hour rescue," Epstein said. "The turnaround in spirit has been terrific."
Epstein, who continues to serve as the Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Athletic Study Center, said he will remain "a very loyal fan" of Cal lacrosse. "I admire the energy, strength, guts and agility they need to compete," he said.
While the team will miss Professor Epstein and its four graduated seniors, Cal lacrosse will return more than 20 student-athletes and welcome a strong incoming class of seven women, among whom is high school All-American Nicole Beck from Pennsylvania and honorable mention All-America Molly Coates from Greenwood, Colo. Brynn Gasparino, sister of rising junior Paige Gasparino from Darien, Conn., is another indication that blue and gold bloodlines are indeed running thick in this program.
Returning players are thrilled for the future, too.
"We have a lot to look forward to," said Hayley Olson, a junior attacker. "We have a really strong team. Everyone worked so hard last year, and we really value being on the field. Being able to go out and play every day is such a privilege."
Teresa Li, a junior in the midfield, agreed: "Our coaches have been phenomenal, and our teammates are our best friends. I just can't wait to have two more years here playing with them. We've put so much into our sport, we're just so excited."
While today's players and the team's young alumni base forge ahead with plans for success on the field and sustainability in their financial foundation, Bear Backers are another vital avenue of support.
This story originally appeared in the summer 2012 issue of Cal Sports Quarterly.